By King, Woodie, Jr.
Black Masks , Vol. 18, No. 2
When Lloyd Richards died in New York City, June 29, 2006 on his 87th birthday, American theatre lost one of the most influential Black theatre artists of the last century. In a world of artists who are only capable of paving the road once the jungle has been cleared and a pathway already exists, Lloyd Richards stood alone. He had had no such pathway for his work with Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. It was Lloyd and Lloyd all alone who placed Black theatre's new voices in the mainstream of American Theatre. He directed six of Wilson's ten plays on Broadway; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984); Fences (1987), for which he received the Tony Award; Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988); The Piano Lesson (1990); Two Trains Running (1992); and Seven Guitars (1996). In his busy breakneck years as Director of Yale School of Drama, the Yale Repertory Theater, and the O'Neill Playwrights Conference (1979 through the mid-1990s), he and I made dozens of trips to both institutions.
Lloyd's enlightenment had caught fire in Detroit where I also began my theatrical career. When I graduated from Cass Tech High School in 1956, all I knew about theatre was that the same White faces I had seen in the movies peopled it. I loved the movies. In 1958, with no history of theatre anywhere in my family, a movie titled The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier, changed my life forever: a Black man saying and doing things I had never seen on screen before!! Who was Sidney Poitier? How did he arrive at the place where he could star in a major motion picture? The Detroit Public Library and librarian Kirk Meyers led me into the world of Sidney Poitier and The American Negro Theatre.
But first, what about theatre right there in Detroit? What about David Rambeau, Cliff Frazier, Walter Mason, Gil Maddox, Alma Forest Parks (who worked with Sidney at the American Negro Theatre), Powell Lindsey, Maggie Porter (Council Cargle was in the Army). David Rambeau loved Black art and Black theatre; he taught me the importance of knowledge. I sought out Ron Milner. Walter Mason, through his sophistication and impressionable work as an actor led me to Lloyd Richards. Lloyd Richards brought me back again to Sidney Poitier. Sidney and Lloyd studied acting together with Paul Mann in New York and so, I thought, I too must study acting. So, I enrolled in Wayne University. At Wayne University Lloyd Richards was a hero. And then, late in 1958, A Raisin in the Sun, directed by hero Richards and starring his friend Sidney Poitier, changed the way Americans viewed Black theatre.
Lloyd, in a conversation with me in March 2002 for TDF 's Sightlines states: "When we opened in Philadelphia with A Raisin in the Sun, the audience was about 90 percent White. In three days the audience was over 50 percent Black, and that's where the story came in. I was standing in the lobby of the theatre looking at the people lined up to buy tickets. There was a woman who was at the ticket window who gave the treasurer $1. The treasurer told her the ticket is $4.80. She exclaimed, '$4.80?! I can see Sidney Poitier around the corner in a movie for 95eV She went into that pocketbook and got out the rest of her money and bought a ticket and started walking into the theater. It was only 3 pm, so the treasurer tells her that she couldn't go in now; she'd have to come back at 8:30. 1 stopped her and asked her why she was paying $4.80 to see Sidney when she could pay 950 around the corner. She said 'The word's out in my neighborhood that something's going on down here that concerns me, so I had to come down and find out what it was all about' At that moment, I knew why I was in the theatre, and what I was doing there," said Lloyd. …